FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
HARMONY HOLIDAY: I started experimenting with language when I was really young, fuelled by witnessing my father compose music and sing. I just thought it was part of being human, to communicate in some form of sound grammar outside of the mundane daily rhythms and speech patterns. I guess exposure to that much music when you’re also learning to talk can make it seem like something you’re supposed to learn if you want to communicate your needs, the way learning to speak and building a vocabulary feels for a child, just an added dimension of that, an augmented sense of the visceral urgency of language becomes inevitable. By high school I was deep into studying French, had developed an interest in the language from studying ballet and modern dance throughout my childhood, and had a French lit class alone, so got to delve into Baudelaire and Rimbaud and learn about a country with a literary culture that seemed to value poets. I ended up editing my high school literary magazine and contributing to it and entering college poised to study the arts in as interdisciplinary a way as I could. I was lucky to encounter poets like Robert Hass and Lyn Hejinian in undergrad, and to witness the poet/artist as citizen in a way that hadn’t yet outside of the home and books and French lit. Their encouragement gave me permission to decide to become a poet without much doubt and fear, or to decide to be who I am and not second guess it.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
HH: Because of my upbringing I never really separated poetry from music and music from the body and dance, from ways of moving through space and time. So my writing developed alongside Jazz, Blues, Soul, and Hip Hop music and in that followed the telos of carving out an autonomous and sometimes double-coded vernacular that black music in the West follows. The music reminds you of your form, the body you’re in and how it operates naturally or at its most primal versus how it’s mechanised and forced to operate in a capitalist society built on using black bodies as capital. Writing and moving in solidarity with black music breaks the psychic bondage that causes black men and women here to deem everything we make or desire either some semblance of savage or inadequate, it relocates our creativity as a birthright and not a privilege that the white world can either grant or revoke. I first faced that I was a poet when I found myself writing as a basic need or mode of surviving intact, of accessing the ecstatic in very personal way, not to impress anyone or get into anything or turn in to any organised body or workshop, when I realised that I had a deep yearning to write the way my father had needed to make music, yes it was a career, but it was a career based on a physical and spiritual need. It takes getting out of school to realise how you’ll function as a civilian regardless of institutional pressure. From there getting my first book published and realising that I could also write to complete work, could maintain that level of discipline with or without anyone looking over my shoulder, told me I had what it takes to do this professionally, whatever that really means. For me it just means not becoming disembodied when the demand to produce is higher, not becoming afraid to take creative risks when they’re more visible and more is at stake.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
HH: Being shortlisted came as a complete surprise, and a thrill. For me, because of the poem’s content, it’s more for Billie Holiday and for all of the black women who, like Billie, were made into examples of both the heights of excellence and the depths of wretchedness, and treated as if their excellence was contingent upon their suffering, as if suffering is what makes us special, is a talent, has value, and therefore is an inevitable aspect of any black artist’s legacy. The ability to convert pain into sublime beauty does not justify the abuse that members of her specific and rare breed endure, nor their erasure and fetishisation. I once debated for hours with a white peer in college who announced one Sunday when I was playing Billie Holiday and reading something ridiculous like Lacan alongside her blues, he blurted “no one really listens to Billie Holiday,” as if the music I needed to even endure an education full of Lacan and void of Fanon was some kind of relic, pure idea like the critical theory we were being taught to revere and depend on to think. As if an education can demand we read theory but condescend our music. I needed Billie Holiday to help me think and feel my way to my own true consciousness, far more than I needed Lacan. I’m always looking for ways to redeem heroes like her by inserting them into narratives of the present, placing them in concert with this era wherein, especially highly educated ‘liberals’ feel like cultural appropriation and erasure have somehow been resolved between the Voting Rights Act and now, which is false but allows for a lot of the prevailing misunderstanding and dishonesty about race relations as they exist today. Also heroin addiction is on the rise again, so it seems fitting to examine how it was treated in the past, like an aesthetic condition, almost abstractly, in hopes that we don’t repeat that mistake. Most of all I’m just grateful that this work resonates in ways I hadn’t even expected, and outside of the US. I’m grateful that people do listen to our music and our stories, and not just for cultural capital.
FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
HH: I read Billie Holiday’s biography last year and around the same time learned about the FBI’s elaborate surveillance of her in Harlem, how a black agent was sent to court her, fell in love with her, and ended up throwing her in court and then in jail instead of getting her to the rehab she needed. How is anyone meant to recover in a country that treats so-called citizens with that much disdain while affording white celebrities all the support they need to protect the sanctity of their reputations? This was around the time Sandra Bland was thrown in jail and did not survive it, and I was working on my book Hollywood Forever a collection of poems and essays designed in the idiom of one of those absurd race tabloids from the 60s and exploring the legacy of fame as a kind of assassin or thief of black consciousness and talent that feeds to propaganda machine while starving the artists, a kind of volunteered slavery. Billie Holiday’s story had to be a part of it, because the empty iconography of her brand is due its true substance and black feminine resilience deserves its day in the sun.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
HH: Jean Toomer, Helene Johnson, Ai, Amiri Baraka, Fred Moten, O’Hara, Hart Crane, Sun Ra, Jeanne Lee, Clarice Lispector, and so many others. I fall in love with poets who are authentically themselves, who have a sound the way Lester Young has a sound, and who don’t sound like anyone else or seem to be baiting the critics for praise or doing any lyric grandstanding. Usually that means they have a strong command for nuance, for pace, can make a world run on their one-of-a-kind rhythm for the length of each poem and collection. That kind of chivalry and inevitability makes my spirit dance. Poets who achieve it are usually healers.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
HH: I’m working on a biography of Jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, establishing a venue for jazz poetry where I’ll house my jazz poetics archive and record poets, hold events and panels and generally stretch out. I’m also working on a collection of poems called M a a f a , the term for the Afrikan Holocaust. In this collection the experience is personified and M a a f a is a woman and all that’s been visited upon her body in this antique future is explored, and how she may be redeemed. In addition, this summer I’m choreographing what I’m calling an AfroBallet for Hollywood Forever, which I’ll debut in Hudson this August.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
HH: Listen. Maybe read Lacan while listening to Billie Holiday one Sunday, or listen to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s version of ‘Come Sunday’ and then Future’s ‘New Illuminati’, and diversify in this way to remain alert, keep your linguistic reflexes advancing. And hopefully avoid getting trapped in any massive bureaucracies while you’re at it, and if you do end up a bureaucrat or at the mercy of one, because we all are on some level, try not to make peace with it, try and overthrow whatever it is the way only a poet can, one orphaned phonetic at a time. And remain brave enough to write the books you need but can’t find maybe because they don’t exist, even it’s risking a certain mask of equanimity, because someone else probably needs it too, the book that peels away any mask of complicity or contingency.